In a revealing email exchange between authors David Gates and Jonathan Lethem posted on the PEN American Center’s website, Lethem bemoans the author’s predicament in the digital age “where the novelists are supposed to shut up and blunder through the dark woods like Salingerian elephants with day-glo targets painted on their backs, entitled only to subvocal grunting when their periodic utterances are filleted in the instantaneous opinion-marketplace.”
This is the world into which we thrust our heartfelt, blood-and-sweat issue; and there is little we dare say or do to combat the verbal scatter-shot that gashes our thick but ever thinning skin.
My dear friend, author Marina Budhos, is standing these days with the bulls-eye on her back with the publication of her novel, Tell Us We’re Home. Here she shares her most recent engagement with the joy and pain of publication, its vulnerability and exposure, and the inevitable challenge of criticism.
ON BAD REVIEWS
Every published author has experienced the harsh, dismissive, or critical review. Recently I received my first bad notice of a new novel, Tell Us We’re Home. Up to this point, I had been basking in the glow of a wonderful launch: two well-attended book readings where I could sense, in my audiences, a startled, intense listening; a starred review in Kirkus; other enthusiastic, appreciative notices. I felt myself lofted out of the gate of publication into the starry universe of success–every writer’s fantasy. And then of course, comes the negative reaction that sends you plummeting down to earth. You land with a hard thump, stunned, dazed, wondering if you can ever write again.
Aspiring writers always imagine publication as a marvelous send off into a sparkling stratosphere of praise, attention, and affirmation. There is some truth to this, for there is nothing like the delicious sensation of releasing a work that has been so private (and obsessive) into the arms of the public. But, as any published writer can tell you, publication is a much more mercurial journey. For one, you have often finished with the book quite a long time before—the manuscript has been through the long, snaking process of production and copy edits for months, leaving you weary and cross-eyed. The actual writing, the love affair with every word choice, every structural decision, is over. I once had a writing teacher say that every time someone praised him on his newly published book, he felt as if someone was complimenting his ex-wife.
Inevitably there is someone—maybe more than one person–who didn’t like the book. Or they found a flaw that slices at you as a wincing hurt—something you hadn’t thought of. Those slighter criticisms can feel like someone noticing your slip is showing and you curse yourself for not paying attention. Each review comes in and looms with huge and loud significance. The bad reviews unfortunately, seem to echo the loudest.
Some writers deal with criticism by simply not reading their reviews, good or bad—a healthy reflex, I think. Others respond with lashing out and dismissing whatever the critics have to say. I’ve heard of one author, who has always been very well-received, and yet her husband cuts out any reviews or articles about her in newspapers and magazines because she cannot bear the pressure.
It is a paradox: writers, who are presumably the most sensitive of creatures; who possess a hyper-alertness to life, subject themselves to a process that even the most thick-skinned and impervious would find harrowing. Too, writers are often working against a sense of inner transgression, telling stories they feel they were forbidden to reveal. They are usually our resident observers, and it is a painful and shaky process to take the stage. To then get cut down for your effort, is the ultimate form of existential pain—reaffirming the very dynamic you have worked so hard to overcome. You suddenly realize the terrible exposure that publishing brings. This is something any writer who seriously wants to get published must expect.
Several years ago, I published a novel that I thought would be my ‘break out’ book. Though it received some excellent reviews, the thumbs-down came from the all-important New York Times. At the time I was recovering from an emergency operation, so my husband hid the review from me, secretly running to the corner outside to speak with my editor about how long they could protect me. When I did read the review, I was crushed and shattered. Then furious and finally, for a much longer time, depressed and deflated.
The best I can say, in retrospect, is what I tried and risked in that book—however imperfectly – was not understood by that reviewer, who was not the right reader for that kind of novel. (Perhaps the worst reviewer possible!) This happens all the time. Our wish is to have the ideal reader who sympathizes and understands what we are attempting as an artist. And yet, hard-nosed as it may seem, reviews—even stupid reviews–are some indication of the reading public. Some will get a book, others will not. It’s no different than in life—some people will be drawn to you—how you look and speak, what you have to say. Others will cross a room rather than be near you.
But that does beg the question: are bad reviews ever helpful? Here we enter cautious and risky territory. Some criticisms do carry the prickly edge of truth to them. Criticism can be good, bracing, even important. It’s only once the whole process is over that you are able to absorb the varying responses, and even the negative criticisms take their rightful and proportional place. In some ways, earlier criticism of my work has led me to write the kinds of books I now write—less conceptual and language-based, more plot-driven and character-centered. Criticism, like it or not, put me more in touch with my readers, as I learned to write less privately, and more for an audience.
Yet any writing is a kind of risk. It means making choices, pushing in one direction that some may not like. To think that we can achieve perfection in the work or unanimity in our readers is folly. Which leads me to another problem with criticism: it is a snap shot of the messy momentum of creativity; a closed verdict on something that is, for many of us, an open, lifelong process. Part of the danger of book reviews is they are tiny windows that do not allow in the larger vista of experimentation, daring, exploration. If I had a magic wand, it would be that we would see more reviews and essays that take in the long view of a writers’ work; that understand the obsessions, influences, and stages we are working through. A book may be a product, but a writer is a living artist, going through a lifelong search with their craft.
Finally, we come to the issue of those who buck criticism—to their peril. There is nothing worse than an author who feels they can do no wrong. Too often I’ve listened to inexperienced writers defend their choices rather than engage with feedback. “That’s the way I see it!” Or “You don’t understand!” I’ll never forget a writer in one workshop who was writing fiction about the mujhadeen in Afghanistan—at that time, a more obscure subject for most Americans. As fiction, the stories did not work. Every time we asked questions or voiced our confusions, she would snap at us with haughty impatience, until it was clear that she was using the fiction to expose our ignorance of this political situation. That kind of contempt for the reader will inevitably backfire.
Criticism is like a body blow that can keep you down for a while. Those tough words ripple through your muscles, leave you aching and shaky. For me, since I am usually on to the next manuscript when these knocks come in, this can be particularly debilitating. My new work is stained with corrosive doubt; my first days back writing sputter and are ill-guided. But I’ve also learned you can’t let criticism keep you down or define your next steps. One day you have to pick yourself up and push on to the next adventure.
Marina Budhos has published the novels, Ask Me No Questions, an ALA Notable and winner of the first James Cook Teen Book Award, The Professor of Light, House of Waiting, and a nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. She is an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at William Paterson University.